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Corruption issue draws little N.Y. voter interest

Voters in New York view corruption in state government as a serious issue, yet only about a third of them have followed recent developments about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s disbanded Moreland Commission closely enough to be able to offer an informed opinion, according to poll results released Monday.

The New York Times reported three weeks ago that the Cuomo administration repeatedly interfered with the work of the corruption-fighting commission that Cuomo appointed. The paper cited one example in which the commission withdrew a subpoena it had issued to a firm that had done work for the governor’s campaign after a top Cuomo aide called a commission co-chairman and told him to “pull it back.”

Since the Times report, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan has amplified his interest in investigating the relationship of the Governor’s Office with the commission, whose work was halted after nine months.

While the news coverage of the controversy caused a stir in political circles, it has barely caused a ripple with the average voter. Two-thirds of voters polled last week by Siena Research Institute said they were not familiar with the Moreland Commission or its work.

Experts say they are not surprised.

“ ‘We think corruption is a major problem,’ voters say. But how much attention are you paying to it? Not very much,” Siena pollster Steven A. Greenberg said. “Most voters are concerned about their everyday lives. And they’re not spending a lot of time paying attention to what’s going on in Albany.”

The usual issues top the list of those most important to voters, according to the Siena poll. Respondents to the poll ranked jobs as the issue that will determine how they vote in this year’s gubernatorial election, followed by taxes and education. Government corruption came in fourth place.

A local political science professor contrasted the lack of public interest in the Moreland Commission with the nonstop coverage of the Watergate hearings more than 40 years ago, and to the widespread public interest in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge-closing scandal several months ago.

The key difference: simplicity – or the lack thereof, said Kevin R. Hardwick, a Canisius College political science professor and a Republican member of the Erie County Legislature.

“Watergate was a burglary. Chris Christie was forcing commuters to wait in traffic for three hours. Moreland is – what is Moreland? Moreland is a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult for most people to grasp what they were looking into,” Hardwick said.

That the Moreland Commission delved into state-level government might also contribute to the public’s lack of interest, Greenberg said.

“Traditionally, state government is the level of government voters pay the least attention to,” he said. “When there’s a scandal or something bad going on at the federal level, voters pay attention to it. It inundates them more. It’s on the 6 o’clock news. And there’s more coverage of city government in the local paper than there is of state government. State government is sort of in the middle.”

The timing of the latest news also explains the lack of public interest, experts say. It’s summer, and New Yorkers are enjoying the sunshine and slower pace of life. They’re not necessarily paying attention to Albany politics.

Reports about the Moreland Commission have barely swayed likely voters’ opinion of Cuomo, the poll showed. It shows Cuomo, a Democrat, with a lead of 32 points over his Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, down from 37 points three weeks ago.

Likewise, the governor’s favorability rating fell – now about as low as it has been at any point since he took office in 2011 – but only by a few points. It now stands at 57 percent, down from 61 percent in July.

His favorability rating among Republicans has held steady, at 40 percent, while he lost ground with Democrats in the last few weeks, now at 69 percent favorable, down from 75 percent. At the same time, 26 percent of Democrats now rate him as unfavorable, up from 19 percent.

Astorino’s supporters hope that after Labor Day, when voters’ attention turns more toward politics, the Republican candidate will be able to capitalize on the Moreland issue. “It’s very early in this race. This Moreland issue is not going away, no matter how much Andrew Cuomo wishes it would,” said David Laska, a spokesman for the New York State Republican Committee. Astorino’s campaign issued a statement highlighting the fact that, among the minority of voters familiar with the Moreland Commission issue, there’s only an 8-point spread between the two candidates: 49 percent of them support Cuomo, while 41 percent support Astorino.

“When people realize they were burned again by another Albany politician, they become quickly ready to throw Andrew Cuomo aside,” said Astorino spokeswoman Jessica Proud.

Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham University law professor challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary Sept. 9, noted that the Siena poll showed 52 percent of voters saying they thought “the governor makes decisions based on what he thinks is best for his political future.” Forty-one percent said they think “the governor makes decisions based on what he thinks is best for New Yorkers.”

“For years, Albany insides have known that Andrew Cuomo has failed to clean up the corruption he promised to clean up four years ago. What this poll shows is that New Yorkers are starting to understand that, as well,” she said. “The reason corruption matters so much is that it’s the reason our roads aren’t fixed and our classrooms are overcrowded. The priorities are with the donors instead of the people of New York.”

A spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment.